ICU nurse who silently protested, faced insults at Phoenix reopening rally speaks out

·5 min read

PHOENIX – It was her scheduled day off from the intensive care unit at a hospital where she takes care of patients who contracted COVID-19.

She found out that morning that a rally was planned at the Arizona Capitol. People weary of schools and businesses across the state being closed because of the new coronavirus were going to call for the state to be reopened.

Lauren Leander texted a few nurses she knew, asking whether anyone wanted to join her there.

Leander had seen photos of medical workers at similar rallies in other states, their presence serving as a counterweight to calls to reopen businesses. She was inspired to do the same at the rally in her home state Monday.

"That was the kind of action we could take against something like this," Leander said.

She spent the next few hours standing silent, her facial expressions partly hidden behind her medical mask, her body rigid in surgical scrubs.

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Leander said she heard a stream of insults from rallygoers. People accused her of being an actor or, if a real nurse, one who performed dentistry or abortions.

Leander did not engage with the people walking by. They were not keeping apart from each other. Most did not wear masks.

She was surprised at the anger directed at her. She isn’t a politician. Her job is to take care of people.

“Whether you believe in the virus or not, we’re the people who are going to take care of you one way or the other,” she said Tuesday in a phone interview with The Arizona Republic, part of the USA TODAY Network. “It was disheartening to have those kinds of comments thrown in my face.”

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Treating her first COVID-19 patient opened her eyes

Leander, 27, graduated from Arizona State University’s nursing school in 2014. She started at the intensive care unit at Banner University Medical Center about a year later.

In early February, the hospital created an overflow unit specifically for the anticipated surge of patients with COVID-19, she said.

Leander volunteered to work the unit.

She knew she was in a unique situation. She was young and healthy, she said, and didn’t have to worry about bringing the virus home to any children.

She said working on that first patient, a young woman in severe respiratory distress, was eye-opening. It made her realize someone her age could suffer greatly from the disease.

“I hadn’t been scared as a nurse before that day,” she said.

She has since worked 12-hour shifts three or four days a week. The unit, she said, has been running below capacity, but doctors describe it as teetering on a tipping point.

“If there was an explosion of this virus, we would not be OK,” she said. “We would not have what we need anymore.”

It was for that reason that Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey imposed an order in March advising residents to stay home. He shut down businesses that were deemed nonessential. Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego had earlier imposed an order shutting down the city’s bars and ordering restaurants to convert to takeout only.

Those orders caused economic pain, and after a month, some citizens and lawmakers decided enough was enough.

Speeches and conversations at Monday's rally, some of which were captured on videos from the events, showed myriad reasons for frustration and anger.

A common theme seemed to be that fears over the coronavirus were overblown, largely by the media and Democratic politicians.

At least 4 medical workers protest at rally

Leander got one other nurse to join her at the rally. Two other co-workers, whom she didn’t know that well, joined them as the day progressed.

Leander brought spare N95 masks, which protect the wearer from at least 95% of small airborne particles. Friends and family bought extra ones in the previous weeks and gave them to her.

Leander's original intention was to block traffic. She had seen that at other cities’ rallies. Police stopped her from doing that.

She said standing silently in scrubs and a mask “was absolutely just an invitation for people to throw whatever accusation or comments they had at us.”

“For the first probably hour, I definitely had a burning desire to say something,” she said. “I wanted to say so many things to every insult I heard. But that was not why I was there. That was not the statement I was trying to make. I feel fortunate I was able to say so much without saying anything at all.”

Television cameras captured some of the scenes of confrontation. An Arizona Republic photographer captured an image of a man waving a flag at her.

Leander and the other nurses moved with the crowd. They stood in front of the old Capitol building, now a museum, when the rally moved there.

As people went to their cars, they stood again at the crosswalk so they could be seen.

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Back to work after her protest goes viral

When she saw the same four cars circling the Capitol, she figured she could call it a day.

“I took a long nap afterwards,” she said.

She woke up to find that images from that afternoon had gone viral. They were on news websites and part of television news broadcasts.

She started getting messages Monday night from friends and relatives and health care workers. By Tuesday morning, her phone “exploded,” she said, with messages from doctors and nurses across the country and Canada.

As the sun set Tuesday, she said she was just starting to sift through the messages.

She couldn’t make it too late of a night.

She was scheduled to start her next shift at the overflow COVID-19 unit of Banner University Medical Center at 7 a.m. Wednesday.

Follow reporter Richard Ruelas on Twitter @ruelaswritings.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Phoenix reopening protest: ICU nurse's viral counterprotest